Argentina and Brazil agreed to mutual nuclear renunciation, and turned their rivalry into cooperation. Could India and Pakistan do the same?
It is a year since India and Pakistan hook the needles of seismic monitoring devices around the world. But the consequences of Pokhran II and Chagai Hills have not been particularly earth shattering. Neither the status nor the situation of the two countries in the international system has changed in any noticeable way. Both states remain what they have been for 50 years: two developing countries in a fractured region; two middle powers with very different capacities and potential, bound by history in a mutual security dilemma that is difficult, if not impossible, to unravel.
The loud noises of condemnation emanating from the “international community” were, as it is retrospectively evident, “all sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The frenetic activity of the great powers to isolate both India and Pakistan was an exercise in futility. Middle powers may lack the capacity to challenge the way in which the great powers run the international system, but they are sufficiently powerful to defy any great power attempt to put them into cold storage.
A year later, although the dust raised by the tests seems to be settling, the nuclear scene in South Asia remains as opaque as ever. Theatrical gestures, such as Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s taking the bus to Pakistan, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meeting him at the border, keep alive the hope that things will not get out of hand. But will the Bus best the Bomb? Frankly, it is still far from clear whether bhangra on the border will lead to a substantive breakthrough in bilateral relations.
Much is being made of the new “spirit of Lahore” that is said to be permeating India-Pakistan relations. Can the two countries, in their new mood of cooperation, be expected to reach an understanding on the nuclear issue? Curiously enough, we may find an answer to this question not in South Asia but in the southern cone of South America, where there is a prototypical example of mutual nuclear renunciation worth examining and which may provide some clues about the future behaviour of India and Pakistan.
The relevance of this case to South Asia comes from the Argentine Brazilian rivalry that was a perennial feature of international relations in South America. In its essence, this was a competition for influence in the region. In particular, Argentina perceived Brazil as seeking to establish its ‘sub-hegemony’ in Latin America under the umbrella of US hegemony.
From the Argentine perspective, this made Brazil the biggest impediment to the creation of an anti-US Latin American solidarity under Argentine leadership. Traditionally, two geopolitical axes were said to dominate the Southern Cone: Buenos Aires and Lima versus Rio de Janeiro and Santiago de Chile. The nuclear rivalry between Buenos Aires and Brasilia was merely a subset of their larger competition for influence in the region.
It is important to underline that the Argentine-Brazilian rivalry was never based on a territorial dispute or an identity conflict. The two countries were therefore able to overcome their traditional hostility and become close friends when they discovered a community of interests that outweighed their antagonism. Moreover, it was the generals on both sides who broke the ice.
In 1980, under shared pressure from the US, the military governments of generals (and presidents) Jorge Videla and Joao Figueiredo signed an agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. This marked the beginning of the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear entente, a process greatly strengthened by Brazil’s open support for Argentina during the Falklands/Malvinas war against Britain in 1982, which, for the Argentine generals, demonstrated conclusively that Brazil was not an enemy.
Thus, when the democratic transition took place in Argentina and Brazil, in 1983 and 1985 respectively, the new civilian presidents found that their generals had already opened up the path to bilateral nuclear cooperation. By 1991, nuclear cooperation between the two countries was in full swing, culminating in the setting up of the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials.
In the ultimate analysis, both Argentina and Brazil felt that they had more to gain from economic cooperation than from nuclear competition. The nuclear understanding between the two South American giants was an essential first step towards a process of regional cooperation and integration. The Common Market of the Southern Cone (Mercosur) is self-evidently based on the new strategic relationship between Argentina and Brazil.
The lesson for the Subcontinent thus is clear: as long as India and Pakistan remain at loggerheads, regional cooperation in South Asia is a pipe dream.
If Argentina and Brazil were able to bury the nuclear hatchet, why should India and Pakistan not be expected to do likewise? There are, unfortunately, five important differences that make a bilateral nuclear deal between India and Pakistan highly unlikely, and perhaps even undesirable.
The triangulation of China. Most Western analysts see only two routes to denuclearisation in South Asia: an India-Pakistan bilateral deal, or a regional nuclear-free arrangement. Neither is acceptable to India, for the simple reason that China is left out of the equation in both scenarios.
Although China is not a part of South Asia, there is a deep-rooted belief among Indian policymakers and analysts that China is a critical element in South Asian regional security. Geo-strategically, China is at the very heart of Asia. Indeed, China defines Asia as the only Asian country that abuts into every sub-region of Asia. Thus, for many Indian policymakers, any geo-strategic (as opposed to geographic) definition of South Asia must necessarily take China into account.
Viewed from New Delhi rather than from Washington, this proposition isn’t as ridiculous as it seems at first. China is a country with which India has fought —and lost —a war in 1962. India deploys nearly half a million soldiers on its disputed northern border with China. Indian policymakers have repeatedly expressed their concern about nuclear and missile co-operation between China and Pakistan. In other words, China is a part of India’s ‘security complex’. It is thus patently unrealistic to expect Indian policymakers to ignore China’s nuclear capability.
Nevertheless, many analysts persistently ignore the “China factor” in India’s security planning, and continue to draw a spurious and artificial equation between India and Pakistan. India, with a population of 980 million, is nearly 80 percent of China’s size (population of 1.2 billion) and over eight times larger than Pakistan (population of 120 million). Nevertheless, India’s attempt to contend with China is seen as hopelessly ambitious, while Pakistan’s determination to match India step for step is seen as perfectly natural. This flawed perception of an India-Pakistan equation lies at the root of understanding the security problem in South Asia.
It is undeniable that in recent years New Delhi’s relations with Beijing have significantly improved. Nevertheless, China remains the cardinal country in India’s international calculations for the foreseeable future. In the Southern Cone, the Argentina-Brazil relationship was never subject to the triangularity that exists in South Asia.
The lack of a nuclear umbrella. One reason why Argentina and Brazil could renounce nuclear weapons is because an implicit US nuclear umbrella exists over the entire Western Hemisphere. South Asia has never been under the nuclear umbrella of a single extra-regional power, nor is it likely that such a nuclear umbrella will exist in the future. It could be argued that the US and Soviet nuclear umbrellas did cover Pakistan and India respectively during the later years of the Cold War. This is at best a debatable proposition. Furthermore, even if these two umbrellas did exist during the Cold War — and it was not a single umbrella — they no longer do.
The burden of history. The shadow of the past lies much darker between India and Pakistan than it did between Brazil and Argentina. The last time Argentina fought against Brazil was in 1828, and the last occasion when Brazilian and Argentine soldiers faced each other in battle was in 1852, when Brazil intervened in an Argentine civil war. In contrast, the last war between India and Pakistan was in 1971, which resulted in Pakistan losing half its territory and population. Although open war between the two has not occurred since then, their armies continue to engage each other in hostile action, most notably since 1984 on the Siachen Glacier.
The shattering of asymmetry. The regional configuration of power in South Asia and South America are also vastly dissimilar. Brazil has never dominated South America, or even the Southern Cone, in the way India dominates South Asia. The Indo-centric nature of South Asia is a fact of history and geography that India cannot avoid and its neighbours cannot ignore.
Geographically, India forms the core of South Asia and its neighbours the ‘periphery’. India shares borders with each of the other countries in the region, while none of its neighbours share a land border with any South Asian country other than India. Indian power far outweighs the combined power of all its regional neighbours. Thus, ever since the break-up of Pakistan in 1971, South Asia has remained locked in ‘structural insecurity’, a product of the power asymmetry in the region. Traditionally, the only way the other countries of South Asia could contend with Indian power was by resorting to external balancing—seeking extra-regional intervention — which India always resolutely opposed.
Pakistan’s military insecurity was further accentuated after 1971, for two reasons. The first reason has to do with Pakistan’s lack of strategic depth relative to India. Unlike India, which has a large hinterland that is safe from Pakistani attack (and which can ‘absorb’ a Pakistani offensive), the entire territory of Pakistan presents a target for Indian firepower at times of war. Pakistani defence planners are quite familiar with India’s preferred war strategy: an armoured thrust in the plains of Punjab and Sindh coupled with an attempt to gain air superiority. With major cities like Lahore just a stone’s throw away from the border, the possibility of an Indian armoured breakthrough remains a military nightmare for Pakistan.
Secondly, Pakistan has a distinct numerical inferiority vis-a-vis India in conventional forces. For both these reasons —geography and numbers — it is in Pakistan’s interest to possess the Great Equaliser. Thus, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence has at last broken the security dilemma in South Asia by giving Pakistan strategic parity with India. Indeed, the countries of South Asia might well discover that the new situation contains within itself the seeds for a durable peace in the region.
The rejection of discrimination. Finally, it is extremely unlikely that India and Pakistan will ever join Argentina and Brazil in becoming members of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which, whatever its supposed virtues might be, is a patently discriminatory arrangement. For this singular reason, non-proliferation can never become an international norm, like non-aggression and non-intervention have been for 50 years.
Those dreaming of, and working for a new dawn of regional understanding in South Asia, will undoubtedly find these conclusions pessimistic, maybe even depressing. However, peace is never built on dreams alone. Even more than those who plan for war, it is the duty of those who work for peace to be realistic. Argentina and Brazil discovered that they could be friends not under the leadership of visionary statesmen, but rather in the grim era of particularly nasty military dictators.
If India and Pakistan are unlikely to agree to a mutual renunciation of nuclear weapons, what does the future hold for a nuclearised South Asia? Can the two countries reach some kind of nuclear understanding?
Nuclear weapons in South Asia may enhance Pakistan’s sense of security, which is a prerequisite for durable peace in the region. The danger in South Asia lies much more in an accidental launch than in a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan arising out of deterrence or crisis instability. The primary task facing Indian and Pakistani diplomats and security specialists is to design a fail-safe system of monitoring that ensures the effectiveness and reliability of the lines of communication between both countries. If nuclear weapons could keep the peace in Europe for half a century, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot be just as safely effective in Asian hands.